About IRG 3 - Risk Perception and Social Response

Will nanotechnologies experience public backlash and stigma when they are developed and disseminated that could limit the realization of their potential economic and/or social benefits? The answer to this deceptively simple question hinges on a complex set of social, political, economic, and cultural factors that are likely to drive sustainability and acceptance or controversy and failure. In addition to economic issues such as job creation or loss, primary focal points of public concern are likely to be risk, regulation, trust, responsibility, and justice, and the degree to which experts share, anticipate, and address these concerns is a powerful predictor of the likelihood of ensuing controversy.

 

IRG 3 conducts novel social research on formative nanotech risk and benefit perceptions through a well calibrated set of mixed qualitative and quantitative social science research methods aimed at studying the views and beliefs about emerging nanotechnologies by multiple parties.

 

By ‘multiple parties’ we mean people in numerous social locations and positions—nanoscale scientists and engineers, nano risk assessment experts, regulators, industry leaders, insurers, NGOs or other social action and special interest groups, journalists, and members of the public who differ by gender, race/ethnicity, class, occupation, education, and age, as well as nation. Thus far, nano R&D has evolved with little evidence of significant public awareness, amplified risk perception, or media attention, and IRG 3 research has moved into more experimental research modes in the context of such continuing low public awareness and low signal amplification. Regulatory action could impact perceived risk quickly and hence is also a vital component of research.

 

Quantitative methods used in IRG 3 include: standard, psychometric and experimental phone and web surveys of demographically diverse US public and a range of experts including scientists and engineers, regulators, and industry leaders; experimental research on factors driving group polarization in emerging nanotech debate, and tracking of print and internet media coverage of nanotechnologies; qualitative methods provide a substantive basis for and validation of quantitative results and include mental models interviewing, expert interviews, ethnographic interviews, and deliberative public engagement workshops and focus groups regarding the risks and benefits of specific applications of nanotechnologies, in addition to media report analysis.